Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Mokuren Interview: 'Judo' Gene LeBell

I am pleased to present the latest in our series of interviews with great martial artists here at Mokuren Dojo. Today we had the opportunity to talk to grappling legend, Gene Lebell. From his website: “In a 50+ year career of high falls and fist fights, ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell has crashed cars, jumped motorcycles, wrestled bears, incited riots and fought some of the toughest men in the world. He was an AAU National Judo Champion and a Professional Wrestling World Heavyweight Champion at a time when wrestling was more about survival than show business… He was there during the "Golden Years" of martial arts growth in the U.S.”

Patrick Parker: Hey, I love that patch you are wearing on your left sleeve in the picture above. It’s hard to see in this picture, but if it's the patch I'm thinking of, it is a cartoon of a guy in a lion’s mouth with the caption, “When in doubt, Choke him out!” A few years back my judo teacher gave me one of those patches and I loved it!

Your bio on your webpage says that at age 20 you had 14 years of hardcore training behind you, including some grappling with Ed "Strangler" Lewis, who is credited with inventing the sleeper hold. Is that where you got your fabulous rear choke?

Gene Lebell: The 1st time I learned it, yes it was from Ed Lewis. Since then there have been many variations in the world, from which I have learned to do it from the sides, the front, etc. They are in my Encyclopedia of Grappling, Finishing Holds for those who want to learn them.

Patrick Parker: Who do you think were the greatest judo teachers you ever got to learn from?

Gene Lebell: In the U.S. Shig Tashma, Larry Coughran, Kenneth Kinyuki, Fuji Nazawa (who just died 2 days ago), and of course I learned a lot from training in Japan (Ishikawa), most are listed and pictured in "The Godfather of Grappling" book.

Patrick Parker: You mentioned your Godfather of Grappling and Encyclopedia of Grappling books... What do you think is the role of books in training? Since you've got to lay hands on a real guy to learn to grapple, how much of what kinds of things do you think folks can learn from a book or a website? What is the best way to learn something when you don't have face-to-face access to an expert?

Gene Lebell: Of course it is always better to work with an expert, but how often can you do that or afford it. As an alternative you use students of the experts, then videos or books. And there is no substitute for getting on the mat and experimenting and trying things to see what works for you and what doesn't.

Patrick Parker: It seems that judo is not as popular in America as it is in other countries, and amateur wrestling is only popular in certain regions of the United States. What do you figure is behind this regional popularity? What do you think we would have to do to grow judo and amateur wrestling in the United States?

Gene Lebell: Publicity. For example - Newspapers have results from horses, basketball, tennis, golf, but not the martial arts results. The people that are not good competitors become politicians, but they need to push the martial arts more. Every tournament and event should be publicized somewhere.

Patrick Parker: You've had so much experience in judo, wrestling, boxing, and jujitsu. Which of these arts seems to you to be the best way to start young children (like ages 6-8)?

Gene Lebell: I would say tumbling, gymnastics. Then if they fall off their bike they have less of a chance of getting hurt because they know how to move through the air. Then Judo and grappling involve all the skills from tumbling. Everyone should have background in boxing, judo, and wrestling.

Patrick Parker: There's been some hoopla in the news and on the blogsites lately about getting young kids involved in serious MMA competitions - do you figure that is a good thing or a bad thing?

Gene Lebell: It is a good thing if they are having fun. Less injuries occur on the mat than on a skateboard in the middle of the street.

Patrick Parker: Does it seem to you like our American society is predominantly becoming tougher and more Spartan/Bloodsport or are we becoming softer by pampering ourselves with excessive rules lawyering in contact sports?

Gene Lebell: As a whole - softer. Kids are not allowed to learn to defend themselves in the school yard. Everyone cries for a lawyer when they look at each other wrong. Men that can defend themselves and their families seem to be disappearing. That is why the MMA is a great thing and popular. It reminds men what men are and women what they are missing out on.

Patrick Parker: Folks call you the toughest man alive. Where do you think that toughness comes from? Is it more of a mental attitude or some physical skills you've learned or an inborn trait?

Gene Lebell: It isn't how you play the game, it's the final score that counts. A hundred years from now nobody knows how you won, only if you did or didn't. What I call a 2nd is the 1st loser. Toughness is mental and physical. You must be fanatical to put in the necessary amount of work to succeed.

Thank you so much, Gene, for sharing your thoughts with my readers and me. There is so much great info here that I’m sure they will appreciate. I know that I, for one, can hardly wait to lay hands on your two books that you mentioned.

For more info on the Legendary Judo Gene LeBell,
or to buy copies of his books,
check out his websites,


  1. His last answer is, um, interesting.

    You declined to ask about the Bruce Lee and Steven Seagal incidents?

  2. What a legend. There are few from that generation left.

  3. Yeah, Chris, I agree. That's one of the reasons I like doing these interviews is because at least once in each interview these guys say something so outrageous that it really shifts my perspective and makes me think about how things are. I might not have phrased that answer that way but I'm not Gene LeBell. Check out the Camarillo interview I did (and the following week or so of posts) for a whole spate of interesting things that challenged my worldview.

    I deliberately didn't ask about the 'Segal' incident because, 1) frankly, i'm tired of that story, 2) I figured it is at the top of every interviewer's page, and 3) I figured Gene wouldn't/couldn't answer it straight on a public forum.

    I don't know about any LeBell/BruceLee ineraction...

  4. So how do you set these interviews up, anyways?

  5. Chad, I got these interviews together by:
    1) putting together a list of people I'd like to interview,
    2) writing each one an email asking politely if they would like to come put to play,
    3) if they agree i send them a first round of about 5 mostly generic questions
    4) after they respond to those five questions i send them a list of 2-3 more specific questions based on where the interview seems to be going.
    5) when I have all the questions answered I format them into a conversation-like format, dredge up some bio info for an intro, and get a picture to add to it.

  6. Pat, I'm such a huge fan of Gene! What a great opportunity and he sure has a interesting approach to life around the martial arts - wow! The concept of "when men were men" was interesting.

  7. Geesh, Gene still has toughness and he's 70+ years old! A real man's man to the fullest. Great life. Great inspiration. Good team up with Gokor too. God bless them both.

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